Posted by: Kash Farooq | January 11, 2012

“I don’t think that any practical use has come of any particle physics discoveries made in the last 50 years”

The title of this post is a sentence being used by a Pod Delusion podcast contributor to justify his argument that the LHC is a waste of money.

I obviously strongly disagree with this.

However, note that the key word in his sentence is “discoveries”.

Now, I know that there are plenty of practical uses that have emerged from particle physics over the last 50 years (WWW, PET, MRI, surperconductors in power transmission, cancer therapy, etc, etc). In fact, that was the basis of my response post explaining the value of blue sky research in terms of spin-offs and unexpected inventions.

But the “rules of engagement” appear to be this: has there been any application of the newly gained knowledge of the structure of matter? Rather than the obvious spin-off usages for the tools used to probe the structure.

So, for example, particle accelerators are used to treat cancer (Proton Therapy). But this wouldn’t count as an example as the particle accelerator was developed as a tool to “play with particles”.

Basically, I want to know if we have built anything by knowing more about atoms than just protons, neutrons and electrons.

Examples:

  • Has the knowledge that, say, a proton is made from two up quarks and one down quark been useful in the invention of something?
  • Has the knowledge that, say, an up quark has a charge +23 e proved useful?
  • The Tau particle was detected in the 1970s. Has there been any practical application of this knowledge since?

I’d suggest that it is a ridiculous rule to disallow the technology spin-offs in the first place. Those technologies were definitely invented as a direct result of scientists wanting to probe matter, and that, for me, is the important point. 

What do you think?

Related posts:

The Value of Curiosity Driven Research (my response argument to the original report).

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Responses

  1. CERN have answered this here:
    http://public.web.cern.ch/public/en/about/BasicScience3-en.html

    Whether or not it entirely conforms to your R.O.E is another thing.

    IMHO, to disallow spin-offs because they are not “pure particle physics” is quibbling. Just because you cannot predict the outcome of research (because it is *research*) doesn’t mean that you should prevent said research from taking credit for unexpected benefits from it.

  2. I’m curious as to whether Giant magnetoresistance – the technology that allows tiny hard-drives in iPods – counts. Whilst the technology is recent, it relies on an understanding of electron spin, which is outside the scope of the RoE.

    Interesting looking at the list of things specifically outside the RoE: PET scanners MRI and superconductors are hardly just spin-offs from the creation of modern accelerators: as I understand it they wouldn’t exist without an understanding of particle physics.

    I’d argue the question is the wrong one: it’s not “what has the LHC done for us”, but “how will the world be forever changed by what it will discover”. Remember that the anti-electron – the positron – was once a mathematical curiosity, now it’s significance is discarded as “PET scanners count” ;)

    • I’d agree that the question is a terrible one, and I think Kash agrees too, from what we were talking about in emails. I think the point of asking it is to try to establish what the use of particle physics might be based on its discoveries alone, and disregarding any indirect benefits of the research. We want, out of curiosity, to see if we can still find some uses, even if we’re playing the game of pretending all of the side-benefits don’t count.

  3. It’s far too limiting to restrict “practical” to what can cure disease or make money, which I suspect is at the root of this criterion. Fundamental research has one primary function — the search for knowledge.

  4. I think I may be stepping forward in the argument a bit, but I just wanted to point out the distinction between “can we (people in the argument) identify specific benefits of the research field” and “government is qualified to pick winners and losers in research fields based on track record, and should do so”.

    For anyone who’s been following the REF debate about impact, measuring past and potential impact of research is a very difficult thing to do, and risks dangerously distorting funding. The best general predictor of impact seems to be _quality_ rather than anything intrinsic to the questions being asked.

    That’s an interesting issue Adam didn’t raise but could have – is searching for confirmatory evidence for the Standard Model a high quality research design? My limited understanding is insufficient to even comment on this, but I think you could make valid comparisons between LHC and other experimental physics with equal power to distinguish between important hypotheses, but lower cost.

  5. By the way, I still think that ‘the ability to excite the human mind into a state of wanting to pursue a scientific career’ is a completely legitimate practical use of particle physics discoveries from the past 50 years. Sure, it’s not the only thing that can do this, but it’s certainly one of the things (and one of the most significant things of recent years), and I wonder how many scientists today wouldn’t have pursued their careers if they hadn’t been fascinated by these specific particle physics discoveries. Impossible to verify with certainty, perhaps, but also very, very likely to be the case.

    This is as practical use for the discoveries as anything else. Some science discoveries help cure disease. Some help us find sources of energy. Some help inspire people to become scientists themselves. Sure, this may not be what was in mind when asking for practical uses, but equally I can’t come up with a reason why the human capacity to feel wonder and be inspired by knowledge should be exempted.

  6. I think the general question is a fair one but the choice of 50 years as the cut off point seems quite arbitrary and probably unfairly short. We are still developing radical new technologies based on particle physics discoveries of the early 20th century. This stuff is hard. Even after a lot of the elementary physics is well known, we need to discover the higher-level effects that may emerge from the underlying laws and then learn to exploit them. That takes time.

    E.g. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, a phenomenon first described in 1938, is a consequence of Pauli’s theory of spin (1927). The technology that exploited this effect to scan a human body wasn’t developed until 1977 and it took a while longer before MRI scans were widely used in medicine.

  7. I was surprised when he cited the Internet as an example of a useful technology that the LHC physicists could be working on instead, given that it was built by CERN as a way of transferring information gathered from particle accelerators.


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